Chef-entrepreneurs open eatery on Roxbury/South End border
For Douglass Williams, Italian cuisine is the most relatable food in the world. Perhaps it’s the comforting flavors of olive oil and Parmesan, or the versatility of pasta, but Williams believes it can bring people together.
If you go
MIDA is located at 782 Tremont St., Boston. For more information on Mida and to make a reservation, visit www.midaboston.com
MIDA, which is Italian for “he gives me,” is a new restaurant venture by Williams and Brian Lesser. The restaurant is located at 782 Tremont Street in the South End, on the edge of Roxbury — a distinction of neighborhoods that was not lost on anyone, Williams said. Despite economic and racial divisions, “What can bring two sides together?” he asked. “I thought about what I like to do the most, what I like to serve the best, what I like to teach people the most, and I said, ‘Pasta.’”
Williams’ theory about Italian food being widely loved is an educated one, drawing on 13 years of chef experience, including five whirlwind years traveling the world. Originally from Atlantic City, his culinary roots are in Boston where he first worked at Radius and then at Coppa, where he “just fell in love” with the process of making pasta, he said.
He left Coppa to go to Thailand. “I wanted to learn more about other cuisines and see how that relates,” he said. He taught Thai locals how to make pasta, and learned how to make rice-based noodles. Then came a stint in New York City, where he worked at Paul Liebrandt’s Corton. Liebrandt, in 2000, was the youngest chef ever to earn a three-star review from The New York Times, at age 25.
Williams then spent some time in Paris, further refining his skills. “What I learned the most was that everybody there owned restaurants at 26 or 28 years old. And I said, ‘What am I doing here?’” He returned to Boston with one goal in mind.
Opening MIDA with Lesser was something he could not have done by himself, said Williams.
“Having a good partner really, really helps. And getting people to be honest with you, hiring the right people from the start,” he said. “You need to let people help you.”
Williams reached out to the Boston-based Restaurant Investment Group, a collective of restaurant and financial consultants spearheaded by real estate lawyer Dan Dain that provides access to capital and financial expertise to young chefs.
“We had conversations, tastings, and lessons on what needed to be done, as far as financial commitment, contracts, personal commitments, everything,” said Williams. MIDA is RIG’s first investment so far, with other restaurant openings in the works.
Williams is excited about the increased interest in restaurant investment in Boston, despite the common belief that they’re risky ventures. “There’s this revelation that restaurants are actually bringing business and revenue into a neighborhood and actual wealth that wasn’t there before,” he said.
MIDA has 70 seats, including 12 at the bar, which is open until 1 a.m. Monday to Wednesday, and until 2 a.m. Thursday to Saturday. Williams works with sous chef Brian Paszko, seven cooks and 15 waitstaff.
As the former space of Cluckit! — and before that Estelle’s Southern Cuisine — Williams was able to keep costs low by adding paint, fixtures, mirrors and a few kitchen supplements. “Everything was kind of in here already,” said Williams. “That’s a key piece when opening a restaurant. Some people want to take everything out, rip it apart, and break down too many walls.”
With the help of MIDA General Manager Seth Gerber and community leaders like Malia Lazu of Epicenter Community Inc., the location of the space was carefully considered to determine the restaurant’s concept. Lazu, who is a strong proponent of equitable liquor licenses in the city, helped Williams acquire one for MIDA. Gerber wants MIDA to activate the South End block and become a gathering place for those in search of an inspired meal.
“We put the concept to the space because the space to the concept doesn’t really work,” said Williams. “You think about what the neighborhood wants.”
What the neighborhood may want is whole roasted parsnip and Spanish octopus served with white romesco and horseradish. Or the steak marinated in chimichurri sauce with “the best potatoes you’ve ever had,” said Williams.
The menu will evolve and vary according to what New England farmers source that season. “We use what we can get,” said Williams. “It’s the sensibility of the Italian, not so much just traditional Italian.”